09 September 2007 - MECA conference, day 3
The day started badly. The first discussion I attended focused on Palestinian politics. The papers weren’t so bad. OK, one of the panelists tried to argue that Islamic Jihad was a secular movement busy making the transition to democratic politics, not at all like those crazy Fatah nationalists who force recruits to convert to Christianity (wtf?). But nothing terribly anti-Israeli, and actually a few good ideas.
Then the “discussant” took over. He turned out to be a community college crank who berated the panelists for not being politically radical enough. He responded to a proposal to use high-tech investment to boost the Palestinian economy (yes!) with an attack on globalization and an ode to the virtues of organic farming in Cuba, which its supposedly fabulous leaders have developed to spite the USA (again, wtf?).
He went on, talking about how this great article by Walt & Mearsheimer had proven that the Zionists control Congress. I walked out at that point, then thought better of it and returned with the thought of interrupting the discussant and taking him to task for giving the panelists a propaganda lesson rather than intellectual feedback. But by then the session had ended, and I just decided not to bother.
I went downstairs to the lounge, where I finished reading Walt & Mearsheimer’s book, which I happened to have with me. Really quite underwhelming stuff, I thought. Their grand suggestion for counteracting the supposedly terrible effects of the Israel lobby, that protean menace, is—get this!—to back an alternative Israel lobby, a Kasrils-type group like Jewish Voices for Peace (again and again, wtf?)
Next, it was time for a lecture about the history of Muslim minorities within the Russian Empire. Rather interesting, if a bit long-winded, and I learned a few things about Catherine the Great I had never known before. Then the lecturer made some side remark about Orthodox Jews, complaining they are “allowed” to study religious texts in their schools but Muslims are not (again and again and again, wtf?).
Then it was time for lunch, and I happened to sit next to one of my co-panelists from Thursday, a Greek Cypriot woman who had just escaped a conversation with a guy who was giving her some one-sided nationalist diatribe about the island she was born and grew up on. One thing I have learned from this conference is that Israelis are generally way ahead of other folks in learning to face up to their country’s flaws.
Instead of going back inside, I sat on the lawn to read—no more Walt & Mearsheimer, but a nice racy novel by Paulo Coelho. I was just getting to the good bit when a tall young man came up to me and asked if I was the guy from Harvard. He was a University of Utah student and former Army Ranger who had suffered in silence through the whole conference, and saw that I’d asked a lot of questions.
I felt for the guy—imagine putting your life on the line every day for your country, then getting back and being told by all these supposedly smart people that the problem was all your fault somehow. Or finding that the politicians who sent you there were suddenly running away from any responsibility for the decision. He was frustrated with academics and politicians, and wondering what to do about it.
I told him not to worry—that at the end of the day these people didn’t matter, that the beauty of the system is that people really did count, that every Congressional representative has to answer to the voters of Youngstown, Ohio or Salt Lake City or wherever, and that there are still people who believe spreading freedom throughout the world is a noble, worthwhile and achievable goal. He seemed happier, I guess.
I went back inside for the conference’s final event, a panel discussion entitled “Middle East after the Iraq War.” Or maybe I read the program wrong, because all the professors seemed interested in doing was talking about what happened before the Iraq War. Oh, and bashing Bush and the neocons, and decsribing the ethnic harmony that thrived under Saddam (again and again and again and again, wtf?).
By Q&A time, I’d had enough. I said: “At the risk of being put in the neocon box, let me propose this: suppose the army stays in Iraq, and applies enough pressure over time that the Iranian people overthrow the regime, and Syria collapses soon after, and suddenly the main state sponsors of terror are replaced by new governments, and the war on terror is won. Now, convince me that’s not going to happen.”
The answer: “Oh, those are just neoconservative assumptions. The Iranian people support the regime as much as the American people support their government.” You mean 30 percent approval? I wanted to ask, but he rambled on about how the minority groups in Iran were happy with the Islamic Republic. Another panelist lectured me about the “criminal” acts of the American government in Iraq.
I wanted to respond in these exact words: “I have 40 bucks in my pocket. This 20-dollar bill says that in ten years there will be a stable, democratic government in Iraq. And this 20-dollar bill says there will be a new, truly democratic government in Iran. And I aim to collect.” But I decided discretion was the better part of valor, and I’d had enough garbage for one afternoon, and one conference. I walked out, again.
Outside, I watched kids skateboarding and listened to the distant cheers from the football stadium and took in the last rays of sunlight. I finished the Coelho novel and walked to dinner, where a bunch of people came up to me: “You really think that the U.S. can win?” One of them asked me to recommend some reading (I offered Sharansky). We spoke at the edge of the crowd, like Soviet dissidents.
To the extent that the MECA conference represents the views of American academia, it was pretty depressing. Actually, most probably don’t think America is evil and Israel is the enemy of civilization. They just never hear any other arguments, because people are afraid to make them. Now, I really wish I had pulled that stunt with the 20-dollar bills. I might have freed a few minds, and my own.